In the Gospels of the New Testament, Jesus makes a lot of promises to his disciples. In between mass-healing people of physical and emotional distress through his magic, he promises that he’ll return before his followers “tasted death,” and that he’ll give them whatever they ask of him/his father in prayer. Exactly none of that’s turned out to be true. But for my money, his worst broken promise must be the one Lifeway recently praised as their favorite: Come to me, and I will give you rest. It’s not just a broken promise. It’s a spectacularly broken promise. But it’s one Christians can’t quit. Today, we’ll explore how this broken promise works—or rather, doesn’t.
It’s the bare minimum that I’d expect out of an allegedly omnimax god, but he can’t even manage that.
(From introduction: The Journey into Hell series on OnlySky; a Christianity Today editorial arguing about people becoming angels when they die; the Chinese news article that sparked that argument; Billy Graham is big mad about this folk belief; a 2014 post from Christianity Today on the same topic. Discord invite! Also, yes, I’m riffing on Neil Carter’s excellent 2016 post “The most fantastically failed prayer in history.”)
(This post originally appeared on Patreon on 5/25/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too and should be available by the time you see this!)
It’s the time of year to focus on Jesus’ promises again—er, I mean, to sell Bible studies
I wasn’t intending to talk about a post on Baptist Press again. At first, I’d thought we’d talk more about the egregiously predatory evangelism tactics that Southern Baptists are using around the world. And sure, I might do that later on. But when I saw their post about the worst failed promise Jesus ever gave his followers, I knew that had to take the first line on our dance card.
(A dance card is a charming Victorian/Edwardian thing. When people attended dances, they received little programs of what songs in which order the musicians would be playing that evening. On each line of the program, attendees could write down the name of the person who’d agreed to be their dance partner for that one song. Some of these cards were quite elaborate and obviously intended to be keepsakes. The Roll to Disbelieve dance card tends to fill up quickly and long in advance. But sometimes, something happens to shake things up.)
The post just came out today (May 25, 2023). Its title is “Bible Study: Rest in Jesus.” We don’t know exactly who wrote it; its writer is simply noted as “Staff/Lifeway Christian Resources.” According to the post, this Bible study is adapted from a Bible study product they sell, MasterWork. Its listing on Lifeway’s shop site is
most not particularly informative:
MasterWork presents both current and classic works of respected Christian authors and leaders in a challenging Bible study format.
I’m not sure where this Bible study comes from. Possibly it’s part of the Summer 2023 curriculum, since that module contains some reassurance-and-comfort mouth noises.
The “most precious” promise Jesus made
Lifeway’s Bible study post begins by asking readers which promise that Jesus made is the “most precious” to them. Then, it answers for them in the words of Dwight Moody, a noted Christian leader who died in 1899:
Though he could give no direct response, Moody’s reflection led him to conclude that “one of the sweetest” of Jesus’ promises comes from Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
I’m not at all surprised that this is the verse Moody, and by extension Lifeway, landed on.
It’s a very common Bible verse across the length and breadth of Christendom. Every flavor of the religion seems to like it.
But Jesus’ rest is totally different from worldly rest, y’all
What I loved about this post is that right after offering Moody’s semi-answer to the question, Lifeway springs into action to make sure everyone knows that Jesus’ kind of rest is completely totally different from any kind of rest the world offers sinners:
People seek relief from their burdened lives through alcohol, other drugs and all manner of diversion and entertainment. Yet when they arise the next day, their burden has not dissipated. It has perhaps been hidden briefly.
Yes, of course. That must be exactly why evangelicals are such bastions of purity and piety. They never, ever drink, do drugs, gamble, compulsively shop, have unapproved sex, or lose themselves in ickie worldly secular entertainment. All they do is Jesus their problems and needs away. Anyone can tell at a glance that it works marvelously for them, too!
The implication is that after Jesus gives rest to his followers, they wake up the next day and find their burdens have, indeed, “dissipated.” Those burdens weren’t simply hidden. Jesus smashed them to bits, set them ablaze, and threw their cinders to the winds. They’re gone. That’s utterly unlike any other relief people seek in the real world, Lifeway assures us.
This is a commonly-quoted promise in Christendom
As I mentioned, Christians of all flavors seem to love this promise.
The site Bible Study Tools describes a number of promises Jesus made in the Gospels. Matthew 11:28 figures prominently among them:
The greatest promise we can receive on earth is one that says you will never be alone. Loneliness is not a fun place to be, but Christ promises we won’t ever be alone.
Meanwhile, Bible.org calls Matthew 11:28 “one of the most beloved passages in the New Testament.”
A Canadian site, Faithworks Centre, positions the verse as Jesus’ expression of love for his followers. More than that, even, its writer asserts that the verse offers Christians relief from fear, hopelessness, addiction, and depression.
We need to see God as our saviour and comforter who will always listen to us when we call on Him because He is merciful and compassionate. The one who gives strength and rest when we are exhausted by trials and temptations. He will give us perfect rest from the struggles of life so that we can forge ahead.
And indeed, Christians really do need to expend effort to “see God” that way. After all, nothing he’s doing would independently lead anybody to form such conclusions.
An Open Bible writer thinks Matthew 11:28 describes the results of dedicating oneself to Jesus.
However, Got Questions likely comes closest to the truth of the passage. They assert that the verse has nothing to do with loneliness or cuddling up to Jesus for emotional care. Rather, it contrasts Jesus’ new offshoot of Judaism with the old-school Jewish system of strict laws, thousands of rules, and emphasis on observance over feelings.
Think of it like in the novel White Fang. The titular wolf-dog first labors under masters who use power and brute force to subdue him, but then he finally finds joy with a “love-master” who treats him well. Subsequently, White Fang becomes the bestest, hardest-working boi 15/10 forever for that lucky guy.
Segue: Footprints in the Sand
Though I agree with the interpretation offered by Got Questions, that’s not how most Christians view the verse. They interpret it as a lovey-dovey Jesus thing, like that dumb “footprints in the sand” poem.
By the way, nobody’s exactly sure who wrote that poem or when. But in 2008, Washington Post covered a lawsuit brewing between a few contenders who claimed they’d written it. Their writer, Hank Stuever, wrote: “The debate over who wrote ‘Footprints’ begins the minute you Google it, and then wish you never had.” S’truth! Besides, all Star Wars fans know exactly why sometimes Christians only see one set of footprints.
(For another take on the matter, see xkcd.)
Of course, nothing in Christianity is a monolith. Here’s a Christian who really doesn’t like the poem. He doesn’t think Jesus babies followers like that. If he descends on followers “like a mother swooping up her toddler” in times of danger, then how on earth will those followers ever “become strong”?
And strong for what, exactly? Ongoing eternal army maneuvers against demons? Hand-to-hand combat in the golden streets of the Heavenly Borg Cube? If they’ve got a god who gives them whatever they want in prayer and no force on Earth can stand against them, then they could be as doughy and soft as babies and still get Jesus’ dirty work done. The notion of humans needing strength training stopped making sense to me long before I deconverted.
Yes yes, but what does it look like?
As we’ve seen many times over the years, Christians are really good at coming up with non-solutions that have no correlation to real-world actions or behaviors. I like to respond to those non-solutions by asking, Yes yes, but what does it look like?
In this case, what does “come to Jesus” look like? How does someone know they’ve done it? What observable signs are present when it’s done, or are absent when it’s not done?
I refer here to the major differences between signs and symptoms. A symptom is something you report to your doctor: Your aches and chills, your runny nose, your feeling of being run-down and groggy all the time. Signs are what your doctor observes and measures during your visit: Your pallor, the color of what’s coming out of your nose, your high temperature and sore throat, your miserable hunched posture. In this case, I don’t want to know how coming to Jesus feels when done correctly. Instead, I want to know what signs I should reliably, consistently expect to see when someone is doing it or has done it.
We’ll get no help there from Lifeway’s Bible study. Here’s all they have to say about the matter:
What does it mean to come? Moody had ceased to try to define it. He explained: “The best definition is just come. The more you try to explain it, the more you are mystified. You don’t need to go to college to learn how. You don’t need any minister to tell you what it is.” Don’t look for five alliterative points or steps. Don’t expect some sophisticated, complicated process. Just come to Jesus. He will give you the rest you seek. Then you, too, can find this rest, “one of the sweetest” of Jesus’ promises.
There’s a good reason why Dwight Moody “ceased to try to define it,” of course.
You can’t define something that isn’t real in real-world terms
Dwight Moody stopped trying to define the process of “coming to Jesus” because it’s not real. Real things can be described and defined in real-world terms. But “coming to Jesus” cannot, because there’s no Jesus at the end of that path. Indeed, the process itself only occurs in the Christian’s mind. It’s completely subjective and imaginary, and no more reflective of reality than some little girls’ daydreams about their future wedding “walk down the aisle.” Or their future triumphs in outer space as astronauts and Space Princesses.
Some of our other sources try very hard to figure something out about it, though. Bible.org decides that come to Jesus means “to work and serve in the strength which He gives.” Others, like Christian Walls, offer non-solutions about Christians needing to super-duper-dedicate themselves to Jesus to get that “rest.”
However, Faithworks Centre contorts itself into circles! I’m just going to show you all of it, because it’s amazing:
So how do we find God’s rest? We become like Jesus through the Holy Spirit. You can’t do it alone. It is not about trying harder, but about BEING more. What do I mean by that? It is a little bit hard to explain, but I will try my best.
There is knowledge and then knowingness. You can read in the Bible that we are supposed to trust God and acknowledge in your head that you do, but still act like you don’t because it is not real to you.
As you take those small steps of faith (and they are different for each person), and God comes through for you, you KNOW that you can trust Him in that one thing which gives you the courage to try the next one. It is only as we experience God that we become more like Jesus and can rest in Him.
I don’t know if I’ve ever in my life encountered a better example of yes yes, but what does it look like? That poor writer has no clue in the world what “God’s rest” is or what it looks like, much less how to obtain it or what it looks like when it’s present in a Christian’s life. Their brain entirely disengaged from their typing fingers. Goodness, they could at least offer us some dressing to go with all that word salad.
But there’s a much bigger problem for all of these sites and writers (except Got Questions; I largely let them off the hook because they’re the only site I found that didn’t go the same route in explaining Matthew 11:28-30).
Also, don’t expect Jesus to, you know, actually help anyone in any tangible way with their burdens
After making a series of demonstrably false assertions in their Bible study, Lifeway assures us that Jesus stands ready to shoulder his followers’ burdens. But that is all he’ll be doing.
Jesus, on the other hand, promises rest from the burden and assistance in bearing it. Life might never be a bed of roses, but the One who bore to Calvary the weight of all the sin of the world stands ready and more than able to share your burdens and mine if we will but “come” to Him.
“Life might never be a bed of roses” means don’t complain if nothing in your life changes in any material way. Because it won’t.
See, Jesus never promised to make anyone’s life easier. He only promised he’d totally be with his followers. Of course, he also promised to give his followers literally anything they asked for in prayer. Hard to imagine how anyone could have any burdens with that kind of blank check in their hands. But apparently, even that isn’t enough to make Christians’ lives markedly better than those of heathens.
To drive that point home, a writer with Bible-knowledge.com chides Christians for even imagining that Jesus ever meant to help his followers in any way. He calls that belief a “false gospel.” Maybe he needs to better coordinate with his religion’s evangelists, then, since they’re big on making exactly that promise—when they’re not threatening people with Hell, of course.
An omnimax god, everyone. Omni-everything. Yep. He’s the whole nine yards. Everyone give him a hand! Unfortunately, he’ll pretend to be here till Any Day Now™. Don’t forget to tip your waitstaff.
Sometimes Jesus just doesn’t make with the sugar, baby
Unfortunately for Christians, Jesus isn’t even doing that tiny little thing for them.
Back in the 2000s, a lot of folks were just astonished to discover that saintly, pious Mother Teresa endured decades of intense feelings of abandonment by Jesus. Well, everyone but fans of Christopher Hitchens. In the 1990s, he denounced her for her hypocrisy and cruelty. Outside of his excellent work, though, many people couldn’t imagine Mother Teresa feeling lost and abandoned by the god she’d served so faithfully and zealously.
It’s like they’d never encountered Christianity in their entire lives.
But that poem about footsteps describes an all-too-common problem in Christendom:
No matter what Christians believe about Jesus’ cuddliness and there-for-them-ness, they often report that they feel like he’s a million miles away. They feel like he couldn’t care less about their problems. If Jesus consistently and reliably gave his followers “rest,” then that poem never would have become a trite, omnipresent bit of schlock in Christians’ homes in the first place.
For that matter, the Bible talks about it too. Another Got Questions post lists dozens of Bible verses and stories of Yahweh/Jesus not responding to his followers’ cries for comfort and help. The Book of Job revolves almost entirely around that exact problem.
The simple truth is that nobody’s giving Christians magical rest from their burdens.
And Christians (and ex-Christians) know this truth very well
Worry entangles me. By night I can’t sleep, by day I can’t rest. The burden of suffering is intolerable. Where is God? Does He know, or are my prayers heard only by the wall?
Luckily, their religious leaders have had about 2000 years to come up with hand-waving to explain the huge discrepancy between Christians’ beliefs about reality and how reality actually looks. As you might expect, a lot of that hand-waving centers around blaming Christians for Jesusing incorrectly somehow. And that’s exactly what that Focus on the Family writer does.
Even amidst all that blame and hand-waving, Christians still send a clear message: Jesus/Yahweh ignoring his followers’ heartfelt cries seems to be more the norm than him cuddling up and wiping away all their tears.
On that note, most ex-Christians know that agonizing final prayer so many of us make while deconverting. You likely know the one, even if you’ve never been Christian in your life. It’s that prayer where we begged Jesus to do something, anything, to make us feel like he really existed and cared about us.
That prayer was our last Hail Mary. Maybe we’d found out that the Bible is hopelessly non-divine in every way. Or maybe we realized that there’s no way that any kind of afterlife could possibly exist. Or perhaps we finally accepted that Christians almost never behave in ways that indicate that they take their beliefs seriously.
But through it all, we hoped—with a tiny, pathetic little flicker of longing—that even if all the rest of it wasn’t true, then maybe some kind of god existed who did care about us. That god is what we begged to touch us. (That’s largely the premise of the 2021 progressive Christian book Before You Lose Your Mind. I’m now about midway through it. So far, none their writers care if their beliefs are based in reality at all.)
Alas, we did not get our hoped-for divine Jesus zap. We only got cold nothing from our ceilings. Of course, any Christian who hears that sneers at us and accuses us of just getting mad when we didn’t get the pony we demanded of Daddy Jesus, when almost every Christian in their religion believes that Jesus promises the bare minimum of comfort to his followers. When we asked for that comfort, we did not get it. And that makes us the weak link to blame, rather than their broken system with its catastrophically flawed message.
Even if Got Questions is right and most Christians have egregiously misinterpreted Matthew 11:28-30, you’d think a little divine comfort might be the least an omnimax god could do for followers he supposedly cares about!
Dealing with burdens the Jesus way vs the real way
So fine: then we shall deal with our burdens in the real world.
Easing your mind of worries, for most of us, involves dealing with the problems causing those worries. Even devising a solid real-world plan for dealing with those problems can help us enormously. Jesus won’t be doing any of that. Instead, he’ll just make your brain stop pumping distress chemicals into your body. Everything causing that distress is still happening, but now you’re not quite so upset about it all. That’s nice in some ways, but it doesn’t solve the problem in and of itself. If you don’t use that post-Jesus-zap clarity to tackle the problem, it stays unsolved.
This whole topic reminds me of a guy I dated many years ago. We got into one of our usual huge arguments about something boneheaded he kept doing. With no resolution on our radar, I was quickly sliding into a blackout-level haze of rage and complete hysterics. When I mentioned that I was getting a terrible headache, he offered me what he said was a Tylenol to help. Well, it wasn’t just a regular Tylenol. I can’t remember exactly what it was, a T3 (Tylenol with codeine) possibly, since that was over-the-counter in that country. But the effect it had on me sounds like a much stronger medication.
Whatever it was, a few minutes later my entire body felt completely drained of all emotion. My anger was gone. My deep distress had evaporated. I felt like a living dial tone. Right away, I knew something was wrong. He quickly confessed to giving me something much higher-octane than Tylenol because, he said, he’d felt very worried about my emotional state.
In my head, intellectually speaking, I was furious. But in my emotions, I felt nothing. Needless to say, the problems between us never got resolved. (We broke up, also needless to say, though not directly after that incident. But eventually, I got my head out of my ass about relationships.)
Whether someone’s dosed with a pharmaceutical or gets a Jesus zap of “rest,” their serious problems are still right there. In a religion whose adherents routinely blame sufferers for their own suffering, it’s unlikely that those problems will be resolved in healthy ways.
Why all coping mechanisms are not made equally
Of course, finding good coping mechanisms can help us alleviate stress so we can focus better on the problems causing it.
Years ago, I used to love walking a labyrinth maze in Boise’s botanical garden. With each mindful step, I felt stress just dissolving from me. By the time I reached the labyrinth’s center, my mind would feel crisp and clear in a way that even that “Tylenol” hadn’t done, and more to the point in a way that Jesusing had never done. I usually ended those walks with a clear-eyed idea of what I wanted to do about whatever was on my mind.
A lot of folks swear by meditation for similar reasons. Just taking a few minutes a day to breathe in and out can have marked effects on our mental and emotional well-being. Self-care in the form of getting adequate sleep, eating healthily, and exercising can have huge effects on our stress levels, too.
For that matter, I also bet we’ve all had restful, rejuvenating vacations (or staycations at home) that recharged our batteries and gave us renewed energy to tackle projects that need completing. Sometimes, getting away from familiar routines and settings can give us a fresh perspective. That’s not blanking out our stress, but instead letting it roll away from us in slow waves to leave behind only the core of our determination.
Jesus offered an inferior coping mechanism that seeks to rewrite the human condition rather than adapt within it
Just remember that you can’t escape yourself. Changing locations and contexts, blanking out stress with imaginary Jesus zaps and all those nonsensical non-solution non-instructions doesn’t change what’s really important. No matter where you go, there you are.
And just like that, there it is: The appeal of Christianity to make people into not-people. To erase the human condition entirely, replacing it with a prettier story that crosses out all the difficult and worrisome and painful parts. To escape ourselves, to plaster over our essential helplessness and unimportance in the cosmic sense of our universe with crowns of gold and silly, useless mansions in the sky.
If anyone dares to meekly mention that Jesus does not seem to be helping them at all, that person can expect to be flooded with accusations of insufficient Jesusing—and what-does-that-even-look-like non-solutions for gaining their hoped-for comfort from their god. I doubt that person would be brave enough to push further with their failure to gain Jesus’ attention. Very seldom to Christians do for such hurting people what Job’s friends did for him: Sit in the dirt with them and grieve alongside them, at least for a little while, instead of lecturing or criticizing them for Jesusing all wrong.
Now let’s consider that this entire journey today started with Lifeway’s chirpy little Bible study. You’d think that in an age of endless declines in membership and cultural sway, the Southern Baptist Convention would be pulling back to the real-world, observable benefits of joining and supporting their clubhouses.
Instead, they’re busy reminding their followers of the most spectacularly broken promise in their entire religion. Yep, there’s no way that can possibly go wrong, especially with the youngest Americans they most hope to recruit.
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